CHICAGO — The excitement of creating and conducting a history making, hit opera is not lost on Terence Blanchard.
His is the first opera from a Black composer to be performed by New York’s Met. And only the second from a Black composer in Chicago on stage at the Lyric.
“I don’t know how I got here. I don’t know how all of this happened. It’s pretty freaky, but it’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s still surreal. I’ve been in Chicago as a jazz musician. I used to play at the Blackstone and play the Jazz Fest out in the park many times. But coming to the Lyric is something special.”
While some may not know this six-time Grammy winner’s name, they definitely know his work. Blanchard is the man behind the music that pulls you into some of your favorite films and he’s Spike Lee’s “go to guy.” It’s a partnership that got its start in a Chicago movie theater.
“I came to see ‘She’s Got To Have It’ in Chicago,” Blanchard said. “And I remember walking out of the theater and thinking, ‘Man it would be nice for me to work with somebody like that.’ … And the next thing you know, I wound up working with him.”
From “Do The Right Thing” to “Mo Betta Blues” to “Malcolm X,” during their 30 year partnership, Blanchard has scored 17 of Lee’s films and earned an Academy Award nomination.
“If I hadn’t become a film composer first, I don’t think I would be able to do this,” Blanchard said. “What film has done is made me understand that the story is the most important thing.”
His opera is the story of “Fire Shut Up in my Bones,” adapted from the best- selling autobiography of acclaimed writer Charles Blow. The production is rooted in and a celebration of Black culture. It also speaks to the universal triumphs of life.
“It’s about coming of age. It’s about perseverance and it’s about strength,” he said. “One of the reasons why I wanted to do this story is because Charles is still with us and he’s extremely successful. And he’s brilliant. And I think to know him where he is now and to see what he’s gone through can be inspiring to a lot of people.”
Blanchard’s own story is inspiring as well.
“It’s like a Cinderella Story in a weird way, you know what I mean? Because I could never foresee any of this,” he said.
Now, the man who was teased as a kid for carrying a trumpet on Saturday mornings rather than a ball wants others to know, things have a way of working out.
“And the thing that I’m always trying to say to young people is, ‘Man, if I’m doing this, anybody could be doing this,’” he said. “I am no different from anybody else. I have the same fears growing up about what my future was going to be. I had the same reservations about — Should I be doing this? I had the same apprehension about — Is anyone even listening to what I’m doing? You know, all of those things play a role and sometimes I tell people I was just too ignorant to know better. I knew that I just loved music and I had fun playing music. And as a result, it’s grown into this thing. So, if you follow your passion, and follow your heart you never know what level of succuss you can achieve.”
For the past three decades, Terence Blanchard has worked with Spike Lee to fill his award-winning films with music. He has 17 “Spike Lee Joints” to his credit. We talked to him about a few of his favorites.